History as a sculpture in Alabama Bicentennial Park

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The 16 bronze relief sculptures, mounted on granite bases at the foot of the Alabama State Capitol Take visitors on a journey through defining moments in Alabama history.

“Each of those moments represents a kind of tipping point for the state — where life before and life after were different,” said Jay Lamar, executive director of the Alabama Bicentennial Commission during the three-year celebrations of the state’s 200th anniversary.

the Alabama Bicentennial Park, an enduring legacy of this celebration, is the collaborative effort of dozens of people, including heads of state, government officials and a renowned sculptor, who envisioned a public art project that is also an all-encompassing history lesson.

“Of all the projects we’ve done for the bicentennial, it’s the largest, most complicated, and hopefully longest lasting because it’s available for many generations to come,” Lamar said.

Located in green space near Dexter Avenue and Bainbridge Street in downtown Montgomery, the park showcases the story for anyone willing to walk through the sculptures and narrative panels. The journey begins with an ancient sea that covered the state and eventually receded to reveal a land rich in natural resources. This history sheds light on the early Native American societies that established settlements, the struggles that preceded statehood, and the constitution that allowed entry into the United States.

One of the park’s plaques depicts line workers bringing electricity to a rural school in Marshall County in 1939 after the construction of the Guntersville Dam and its hydroelectric power plant. (Alabama Department of Archives and History)

Rural Electrification in the Spotlight

The story continues through difficult days of secession, war and emancipation. Industrialization is part of this history, as is the 1901 Constitution, which enshrined unjust barriers to the right to vote. The diversification of the state’s agricultural economy followed the destruction of the weevil. Then, as the state’s residents weathered the Great Depression, power reached rural communities and Alabamaans contributed to World War II.

In the mid-20th century, Alabama became the center of the country’s civil rights movement while also playing a central role in the international space race. And entering the 21st century brought globalization to the economy, which benefited from the automobile industry, aircraft manufacturing, biotechnology research and other advances that laid the groundwork for a third century of statehood.

Decatur State Senator Arthur Orr, who chaired the commission, challenged that every child in Alabama be able to see some of his or her own space in the park. “He gave us the mandate that this needs to be discussed with the entire state,” Lamar said. Additionally, children are incorporated into the sculptures to remind young visitors that they are part of history and can help make history.

The park was approved by law in 2017 and began a two-year process to complete the project in time to recognize two centuries of statehood on the official anniversary of December 14, 2019. “The most important thing for us was that it was a very strict deadline,” Lamar said. “There were a few moments where we worried about getting there, but at the end of the day we made it.”

A call for proposals issued by the Alabama State Council on the Arts sparked the interest of sculptors across the country, eventually leading to the selection of Caleb O’Connor from Tuscaloosa. O’Connor brought in Craig Wedderspoon, a sculpture professor at the University of Alabama, as a project collaborator to oversee the foundry and base installations.

“Finding out what the content would be was another process, and the archive and history were very involved in that,” Lamar said. Then came the creation of the sculpture and the preparation of the site, managed by the Finance Department and adheres to regulations for a historic space overseen by the Alabama Historical Commission. As advisory groups weighed content and artistic expression, submissions were collected from across the state.

There were “many voices and many perspectives involved in the planning and execution of the park and monuments,” Lamar said. “It was one of the most collaborative projects we’ve done and I think the result is good.”

Sculptor Caleb O’Connor is working on a plaque for Bicentennial Park. A documentary about the construction of the park is available on YouTube. (Alabama Bicentennial Commission)

A welcome opportunity

For O’Connor, this collaboration was welcome. “I’ve seen the opportunity to work with all these people as an enrichment to study history and get a full understanding of what happened,” he said.

O’Connor, who grew up in Hawaii, attended Maryland Institute School of Art, where he studied painting and later received a Fulbright scholarship to study in Italy for nine months. In 2009 he moved to Alabama where he began work on a series of large-scale historical paintings for a federal court. Today he runs an independent studio in Tuscaloosa.

“I’m very familiar with Alabama history through other art projects I’ve done,” O’Connor said, noting that he was drawn to the opportunity to study it more closely. He was also drawn to the project because of his love of sculpture. “Having the opportunity to undertake such a large-scale public art project brought me close to the Italian masters I had studied,” said O’Connor.

“Realizing projects of this magnitude with the art of high relief, as seen throughout Italy, fascinated me.”

A documentary about the development of the park, “Alabama: In the making‘ is available on YouTube.

Schedule your visit

Alabama Bicentennial Park is located in the State Capitol complex near Dexter Avenue and Bainbridge Street. It occupies the green spaces adjacent to the Lurleen Wallace Office Building and the Attorney General Building on the 500 block of Dexter Avenue.

The park is open year-round from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. and is well lit at night. Free entry. Paid parking is available on several surrounding blocks. All street parking is free after 5pm and on weekends.

This story originally appeared in Alabama Living Magazine.

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